It's been weeks since the Lentz family was murdered, but no one has been charged

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Mike DuPre'
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Danyetta Lentz and her teenage children, Nicole and Scott, were found murdered in their mobile home nine weeks ago.

Five days later, Rock County sheriff's deputies arrested one of the Lentzes' neighbors, James C. Koepp, on suspicion of the murders.

But the investigation into the triple homicide at Janesville Terrace, 3315 S. Highway 51, has sparked more speculation and questions than charges.

Sheriff Bob Spoden called a press conference to announce the solving of the worst crime in Rock County history five days after the Lentzes were found in their blood-splattered home.

At the meeting, Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary said he would follow through with charges of first-degree intentional homicide, probably at a court hearing two days later.

O'Leary still has not filed murder charges against Koepp. After that first court hearing, the district attorney said he needed more evidence before filing charges.

One of the things O'Leary said he was waiting for was analysis of potential DNA evidence.

Sole suspect

Thirteen days ago, Spoden announced that the investigation into the Lentz murders was substantially complete. DNA analysis on several pieces of evidence had been done, the sheriff said.

"As has been the case since his arrest, James Koepp remains the sole suspect in these three murders," Spoden said in a press release. "This case has now been turned over to the district attorney's office for further action.

"Because this is a pending criminal matter, we are unable to comment on the results of any crime laboratory analysis, as we do not wish to prejudice any future criminal case by discussing matters of evidence. As this department's investigation of these murders is complete, any further requests for media information will be forwarded to the Rock County District Attorney's Office," Spoden said.

The district attorney still has not filed murder charges.

And he's not talking.

The last public statement O'Leary made on the case was a press release on the heels of Spoden's latest statement to the media:"The Rock County District Attorney's office is in the process of reviewing the materials forwarded from the Rock County Sheriff's Department concerning the Lentz homicides. It is unknown how long the review will take, and media will be notified if-and when-charges are to be filed in that case.

"The district attorney's office will have NO COMMENT on the status of the review, what materials have been turned in, what materials may still be needed regarding the investigation or any sort of timeline concerning charges. Again, media will be notified if and when charges are to be filed."

The capital letters were in the press release.

Other charges

Urgency to charge Koepp is not as intense as was urgency to make an arrest. Koepp remains in jail in lieu of $60,000 on four traffic charges, including recklessly endangering safety, fleeing and third-offense drunken driving.

Koepp tried to get his bond reduced to a simple signature or $200, an amount his attorneys said he could afford, but Judge Alan Bates rejected the argument.

The chase that resulted in traffic charges occurred when Koepp was supposed to be talking voluntarily to detectives as a "person of interest," not yet a suspect, in the Lentz slayings, Spoden said.

The missed interview and the drunken driving appeared to be coincidental, Spoden said at the time, adding that the deputies who arrested Koepp on traffic charges were unaware detectives wanted to interview him about the murders.

That wasn't the case, according to a deputy's testimony at Koepp's preliminary hearing on the traffic charges.

Bryan Hanthorn testified he was ordered in on special assignment the night of Jan. 16 to locate one of Koepp's vehicles and check his welfare.

When he was arrested, Koepp, extremely upset and crying, told deputies: "I just wanted to say goodbye to my wife. ...I didn't mean to kill anyone. ...Why are you worried about a drunk driving when you are pinning three murders on me?" according to a criminal complaint filed against him.

Koepp's blood alcohol level at the time was 0.13, the complaint alleges. Wisconsin's legal threshold for intoxication is 0.08.

How far and how long investigators questioned Koepp after the traffic arrest are two of the case's questions. While police can-and probably should-interrogate intoxicated suspects, defense attorneys certainly will challenge any statements made while the suspect was drunk, experienced investigators have said.

Sheriff's reasons

After O'Leary first backed off filing charges, Spoden issued a press release outlining reasons for the arrest:

-- Koepp's presence at the crime scene at the time investigators believe the murders occurred.

-- Incriminating statements and untruthful statements made by Koepp to law enforcement and others.

-- "A very telling timeline" as to when the crime was committed.

-- Koepp's personal relationship with one of the victims.

-- His flight from law enforcement after he failed to appear for the voluntary interview.

-- Koepp's stated intent to leave the area.

-- His violent criminal history, including using a knife and threatening to kill victims.

Koepp is a convicted sex offender who served prison time for a 1982 assault in Dane County in which he forced two women at knifepoint to perform sex acts, including intercourse with him.

Spoden's statement of Koepp's personal relationship with a victim also engendered speculation.

Affidavits filed to obtain search warrants of Koepp's person, home and vehicles suggested an intimate relationship between him and Danyetta Lentz.

After he missed the appointment for the voluntary interview, Koepp, crying and apparently drunk, called a detective and said: "I didn't do it. ...If I come forward, I'm going to lose my wife....

"I know you're going to arrest me. ...I'm going to hang up before you trace this call,'" according to affidavits.

During a second call to the investigator, Koepp said: "I didn't do anything. I didn't f--- kill anyone. ...I was stupid. I was stupid. I did a dumb f---g thing."

The same day, a female detective was in Koepp's home interviewing his wife, Nancy, when Koepp called. The detective asked Nancy if she wanted her to talk to her husband.

Though she identified herself, "it was obvious he thought I was his wife," the detective wrote. "He kept saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," according to the affidavits.

Koepp hung up, called back, and the detective again tried to identify herself.

Apparently still thinking he was talking to his wife, Koepp kept saying: "I love you. I'm so sorry. It only happened once, and I know I f--d you over."

Whether Koepp, 47, was referring to an actual affair with Danyetta, 38, or was laying the groundwork to explain why his DNA might be in the Lentz home is another of the case's questions.

Spoden confident

Spoden stuck to his guns March 6 that Koepp is the only suspect after the State Crime Laboratory reported on DNA analysis and other physical evidence. So it appears physical evidence implicates Koepp or, at the least, does not remove him from suspicion.

But O'Leary still has not filed charges, indicating a problem, at least so far, with the evidence.

Three weeks ago, it was learned that sheriff's investigators had returned to Janesville Terrace to take DNA samples from all the men in the trailer park.

Cmdr. Tom Gehl was asked if the samples were gathered because the crime lab analysis had found male DNA other than Koepp's in the Lentz trailer.

"We've been taking elimination samples," Gehl said then. "We're taking samples to use as the basis for the elimination of persons who could have been legitimately in the trailer-if that becomes necessary."

Collecting elimination samples is routine, Gehl explained, adding there was no significance to gathering them later, rather than earlier, in the investigation.

Because people's memories fade with time, investigators first concentrate on gathering observations and recollections of potential witnesses, Gehl said.

"The DNA is going to be there for elimination samples," he said. "It's a step we take further on down the line."

Koepp was known to be in the Lentz trailer at least once-to fix a window sometime before the murders.

Other DNA?

But other developments indicate that other male DNA might have been found, perhaps in incriminating places, in the Lentz home:

-- Spoden's most recent press release saying, in part, "Further DNA analysis and forensic analysis of other types of evidence remain to be completed."

-- The gathering of DNA samples from male neighbors.

-- O'Leary's reluctance to file charges.

Gehl, a long-time, savvy member of the sheriff's department, was assigned to manage the investigation shortly after it began. His primary duty is supposed to be supervising the jail as part of Spoden's reorganization of sheriff's department brass.

Formerly chief deputy, Spoden was elected sheriff in November. He was in office only 10 days when the Lentz family was found slain.

Authorities still have not detailed how the Lentzes were killed.

They gave "complex homicidal violence" as the official cause of death, meaning each of the victims could have been killed by more than one means.

Items taken from the Lentz and Koepp homes indicate that the victims were strangled as well as stabbed, and the search warrant affidavits revealed that Danyetta was stabbed.

At least four different edged weapons were used to kill the Lentzes, according to the affidavits. It appeared that investigators found one of the murder weapons, a knife.

A forensic pathologist told investigators "one of Danyetta's wounds was consistent with being inflicted by a scissors-type instrument and at least two different knives were used. Scissors consistent with the wounds ...were not recovered from the Lentz residence, and at least one of the knives used during the homicides was also not recovered."

Ninja case?

How one person could kill an adult and two teenagers without a gun in the close confines of a mobile home remains one of the case's most perplexing questions.

One of Koepp's public defenders, Larry Peterson, commented early on: "This is kind of a ninja case: How one person could've done it?"

But others close to the case point out that Koepp was convicted of forcing two adult women to commit sex acts, including intercourse with him, while he was armed only with a knife.

Once charges are filed, defense attorneys may ask for a preliminary hearing within 10 days to determine if there is sufficient probable cause that the defendant committed a felony.

Evidence presented at preliminary hearing doesn't have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable a doubt, but once the process starts, Koepp can demand a speedy trial.

So once O'Leary files charges, the judicial clock starts ticking.

The clock in the Lentz murders has marked nine weeks.

Last updated: 3:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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